Rethinking schools

Some thoughts on education...

America’s childhood-killing, learning-blocking homework insanity

Decades ago, when Japan was starting to dominate the economy while the United States was retreating, pundits and politicians tried to figure out how we could close our “education gap.”  The solution, pundits and politicians agreed, was to toughen up.

In the end, the United States launched a weak, rather flawed version of every other nation’s standardized testing, and a macho combination of longer school hours, extra homework, rigorous curricula, and tougher grading.

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Thus, in many towns, we send our students to long hours of school, followed by longer hours of homework, teaching them reams of trivia that they will (and probably should) forget in a year or two. Yet, we still come in well behind countries like Estonia and Belgium in educational achievement (#14 on one list, as nicely illustrated in this Guardian article).

Our longer school hours, absurd homework loads, and high spending haven’t helped us break into the global Top Ten.

Perhaps it’s time to stop and think about what we’re doing? It’s not the American way, but stay with me for a moment.

Research shows that moderate homework increases achievement. Adding more homework doesn’t add more achievement! We hit diminishing returns, and end up robbing people of their childhood, fatiguing them, and burning them out at an early age.

Thanks to research on training for adults, we know that:

According to a U.S. News report, high school students typically get over three of homework per week, per teacher — 17.5 hours per week for students with five subjects. That’s just a typical number; at many schools, it’s much higher. Even in middle school, kids face similar workloads, according to the report. Oh, and that doesn’t include studying for tests.

What happens when you dump four to six hours of  homework on students every night — as a surprising number of schools do? For one thing, you ratchet the stress level up to the point that kids are breaking down at record rates. There’s a problem when hospitals are getting high school kids coming in with neurotic paralysis. In addition to the high human cost, though, there’s the fact that such stress blocks long-term learning. What’s the point of school, to pass the next test or to teach for life?

Why aren’t our students learning as much as the far more relaxed European students, who still beat Americans on every measure? One reason is because people have the best long-term learning when they are not highly stressed.

What if you get sick or have a family emergency? You’re expected to somehow do six hours of homework a night and get better and make up the work you missed. Good luck!

It’s become normal now for high school students to go to bed after their parents. At my son’s school, the teachers and parents’ association are proud of it. “Oh, we make sure our daughter goes to bed by 2 am. We don’t like having kids doing homework until 3.” (Visualize this being said in a smug way, in the same vein as “I hate it when people stare at my Rolls-Royce.”) This is not healthy; this should not be normal; this should not be tolerated.

On holidays, high school students are doing homework full time, because you wouldn’t want kids to have days off. No, it’s important, especially on religious holidays, to assign extra homework. Does the school have a rule against that? No problem, just schedule it for the day after they return. Problem solved. Did the school ban having more than three tests a day per student? Just rename the test to being a “quiz,” ... with the same material and the same grade weight.

There are reams of summer homework — weeks of full time work, rather than a few practice problems spaced out over the months to make sure math skills don’t disappear (easy enough to do with the web).

Why are we allowing this?

Why is the homework load so intense? What is the point of it?

There is no research that shows this is good. The research shows that a little homework is good — maybe an hour or two a day. No more than that. Then you get into learn-blocking anxiety and exhaustion and fatigue, and a precious time of life wasted away in busywork.

To me, that’s a crime.

A “new” way to cut homework loads

In some schools, the biggest obstacles to reasonable homework loads — which I’ll define as “under two hours per day,” based on past research — are the teachers and the parents (or, at least, some of the more outspoken parents).

Recently, a school administrator suggested a clever way around the problem of teachers who insist on assigning an hour or two of homework a night, regardless of the students’ other teachers: having fewer teachers for each student.

That sounds confusing, so let me explain. I don’t mean dropping teachers or adding students; I mean changing course schedules so they’re closer to the way they were decades ago. Today’s students can have twelve classes a week from eleven different teachers; block scheduling and short class-times result in kids seeing more teachers per day than people may age did.

The short class times made sense at the time, because there’s only so long kids can sit still and focus on a droning voice in front of the room; but the side effect of shorter class-times, which is more classes, has its own problems. Kids can have four or five tests in one day; in schools which have rules against, say, more than three tests per day, teachers simply call one of the tests an “evaluation” or “quiz,” and get around the rule. Likewise, and more to the point today, each of these (say) six to eight teachers assigns their own homework.

Making the classes a little longer, and having fewer of them each day, should automatically reduce the homework load by dropping the number of teachers. This is the easy way out — schools don’t have to make teachers change their ways to drop insane three-to-six-hours-per-day homework loads.

There are other advantages. It's hard to keep track of so many subjects at once; doing so adds to the stress level of high school students who already have to balance grades, growth and biology changes, future colleges or careers, PSATs and SATs (or ACTs), and such. Reducing the number of courses should reduce their “thought overhead.”

Over the course of four years, high schools can still fit everything in, just not at the same time. As one example, a local magnet school actually has biology, chemistry, and physics taught simultaneously, for three years. That could easily be cut down to just one science per year, especially as no effort has been made to integrate the three classes.

It’s probably worth adding, at this point, that colleges tend to still have three-and-four credit courses, with 15 credits per semester being normal — that’s five or fewer subjects at a time. High school is actually harder to balance now, than it used to be.

Is it worth going back to the past? I would say that the advantages of shorter class lengths are more than offset by the problems of taking so many classes at once. Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come back.

Note: You might be wondering how the overall homework load can fall, even if the total work done over a high school career is the same. It all comes down to teachers believing a certain amount of homework is appropriate, operating in a vacuum. This brings up questions of how teachers decide how much homework to assign and whether cost/benefit analyses come into play, but that’s a question for another time.

Measuring education by weight or volume?

Ever notice that when you get a bag of potato chips, it’s mostly empty space? You get a huge bag with a few grams of salted fat-chips.

I sometimes wonder if many American schools aren’t similar. We send our kids to school from early morning to mid-afternoon, and then make them do homework for one to five hours more (the optimum homework load, by the way, seems to be 1-2 hours, based on rather scanty and mildly dubious research).

In the end, we have notoriously ignorant citizens who get basic facts of our own history wrong, speak a single language, don’t understand the basics of politics or economics, have no clue how scientists work, can’t read or perform original research, and, generally, live up to the worst fears of Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin while confirming the dire predictions of monarchist onlookers (like, well, Hamilton).

What’s wrong with this picture?

There are some factors which I think aren’t talked about much, first being that American education tends to be more influenced by fads than by actual research. Since many boards of education and principals don’t know any better, it’s hard to counter arguments that more and tougher is better.

In addition, many Americans want their own ignorance to continue into future generations, which affects teaching about things like climate change, human reproduction, and history; suggesting that maybe the South started the Civil War (it did fire the first shots, after all) or that it was about slavery (as they wrote in their constitution), for example, is almost as “politically correct” and loathed as teaching about the influence of women and union leaders.

I do have a partial solution for this issue—which is not teaching about climate change or evolution. Instead, we can teach how science works; how to do, read, and critique research; and how to use logic and reason to persuade yourself of reality. I think kids who are armed with the weapons of reason will reach their own conclusions, even when deluged with fake news. It’s not hard to find dialogues and debates over climate change and evolution.

(There has to be some way to make science more interesting than rappers and sports for more kids. Do you have any ideas? Use the comment box.)

We tend to avoid teaching actual science. Our hard-working teachers do some demonstrations, which are good but often clearly scripted with the meaning not quite understood by the class. I’d even like to see class experiments fail just so the teacher can expose the reality of science, which is that sometimes we screw up and don’t get the results we expect. Scripted errors are another thought — the class does an experiment to show something, but something else happens, and we learn from that. We all know the story of penicillin, but you don’t really “get it” until it happens to you!

Finally, too much of what we teach is there because it’s there. At some point in the past, before research was applied to education, armchair theorists sat in judgement and decided that we needed to fill children with science trivia, calculus, and pointless, incorrect historical facts. We have the “seven colors” of the spectrum, which Isaac Newton made up because he liked the analogy with musical notes, as one example; or most of the Columbus/1492 story as another.

A recent story in the Macalaster alumni magazine (I’m not from Macalester myself) asked why we teach calculus, and that’s a prime example. We teach nearly every college-bound high school kid a type of math which is very difficult but only used by a small fraction of graduates. When I learned it, there was no mention of what it was actually used for, either; I learned that later, largely from Douglas Adams’ writings. I learned what trigonometry was for, long after taking the tests, when reading the Master and Commander series (though apparently it’s used for things besides rigging and navigating sailing ships).

If you ask me what types of math I actually have used in real life, it’s small amounts of relatively simple algebra and lots and lots of statistics. Now, statistics is being taught in some schools, but I wonder which type they’re doing—stats for stats majors, the most useless classes I had in grad school, or statistics for research, the most useful classes I had. Again, research methods, with statistics as tools, are powerful and easily abused, and one of the most important things we can teach. Yet, because they don’t fit into Georgian or Victorian educational models, they tend to be taught rarely and poorly. We are so focused on what the planets weigh that we ignore how they’re weighed; we are so focused on Newton’s theory of colors that we ignore how such theories can be tested and disproven.

We have a long ways to go in improving education. I’m not the first to say this, but I think we look too closely at how well students remember what they’re taught, and not closely enough at why we teach those facts and methods. If every American knew calculus and trigonometry as perfectly as the most skilled mathematician, it would have only a minor impact on our nation’s success. If every American fully understood research and development, including how we prove or disprove theories, we could make a great deal of progress indeed, in both business and government.

Who’s first to step up to the plate and do something about it?

And, finally, a more optimistic view

Twenty-three years ago, Columbia University awarded me a doctorate in social and organizational psychology. Given that my career in the last decade has been publishing in the auto industry, with organizational change relegated to a part-time now-and-then status, I’ve sometimes made light of the usefulness of my degree. The other day, though, I started to think about it.

Regardless of whether it was the right degree or career for me, learning about social and organizational psychology did change my life. Even in undergraduate work, under Mel Gary, I learned about the roots of prejudice and discrimination, how they work, and how inevitable they are, which reshaped my attitudes about people and society.

In graduate school, we went through reward systems, motivation, all manner of group dynamics, how change works (or fails), and consulting — all fine background knowledge, and useful at those times when I was called upon in a professional capacity. But two other areas of knowledge stood out.

First, we have research methods, which I mainly learned under Gary Bridge. I took five or six full years of statistics in graduate school, but what I actually have used (and understood) is all from one year of Dr. Bridge’s classes and one year of a then-new stats professor’s classes; the rest was all “stats for math majors,” going into far too much of the mechanics and far too little of the meaning. Gary Bridge taught us about validity and reliability, morals and ethics, and experimental design. From this, I learned, essentially, how we know what’s real and what isn’t, how to detect bad research, how to do good research, — how to push forward the frontiers of knowledge without being taken in by bad or foolish work. Other faculty built on that knowledge; everyone in the program was firmly based in research. We had no armchair theorists, no purely-qualitative work masquerading as science.

Second, there was systems theory, expounded by Warner Burke, Harvey Hornstein, and Mort Deutsch alike; all focused on organizational culture and change. Mort Deutsch was a soft-spoken, quiet, slow-moving man who almost single-handedly saved the lives of hundreds of New York kids per year, by analyzing the problems of shootings and stabbings, discovering the causes, and addressing them directly; school by school, the metal detectors and armed police were withdrawn as he made his mark. His past career had essentially been one theme over and over again: walking into a hot controversy, where one side said “A” and one said “B,” and doing research which showed under what conditions each side was right and wrong.

It turns out systems theory (which I think was actually most directly addressed by Burke and Hornstein) is exactly what you need in the automotive world, where there are interlocking systems — the main ones being production and engineering. Nothing exists in isolation, as Elon Musk is discovering now, having led the creation of a car without much thought given to ease of production. Coincidentally, my grounding in systems theory came at about the same time as the 1990s Chrysler revolution, with engineers changing their designs to make cars cheaper and easier to build and service. There were some rather ingenious changes in those days that brought the assembled price of a car down by thousands of dollars — because the leaders used systems theory rather than learning and forgetting it. My first and best mentor in the auto industry, the skilled engineer and project rescue artist Robert W. Sheaves, pounded on the importance of vehicles as systems, the interdependence of everything from design software to production methods; and the lesson was easy for me, thanks to that “useless” education.

Harvey Hornstein saved my graduate career, but before that I remember him as the man whose final exam was showing parts of a movie (Mary Poppins, in my year) and having us explain everything we’d seen in terms of the classwork — Mary Poppins as organizational change consultant, the methods and the theories. He also showed that even a theory which seemed to have little use or validity could have its place, and helped open my mind to being open-minded, so to speak. Again, organizational culture — the norms and roles and such — was pre-eminent. That fit with my past experiences as a temp, moving from one place to another and observing the differences in how people acted.

Warner Burke taught one class through analysis of popular books (Soul of a New Machine, The Right Stuff, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors), using what’s often called the Harvard Business School method or case study system — but he did it against the background of research and theory, and explored different possible explanations, something I’ve never seen in other case-study reports (which tend to be self-serving, that is, used for illustration of a previously held notion). Since you can often use different theories to explain the same events, I’m usually not fond of the case study, but Burke — like Hornstein and Deutsch — was firmly grounded in theories backed by valid research... research which all three might list in terms of both strengths and shortcomings.

I fear that, without this grounding, I could easily have become something else — perhaps one of those fearful people who believes Internet scare-stories, has absurd and internally inconsistent politics, demonizing The Enemy and believing anything is okay if it’s done by My Side. I’m at about the age where many are taken over by fear, bitterness, and unreasoning hatred. Six years of work in graduate school (including the master’s degree) taught me enough to avoid that, and to see the flaws in arguments I generally agree with as well as those I don’t. It’s probably stopped me from identifying far too closely with my social groups and becoming one of those who “drank the Kool-Aid.” It may not have made me popular, but it’s made me wiser.

Disclaimer: All my classes were at Teachers College. I paid my tuition to Teachers College. Teachers College was not, however, authorized to hand out PhDs, so it turned out that I had actually been going to Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences without realizing it. These are the legal fictions that provide some amusement now and then.

David Zatz is a writer, organizational development consultant, editor, photographer, and automotive/organizational historian.